Can we prevent 24-hour working becoming the new norm?

Posted on under Today's research

Many of us, especially in the professions, are trapped in a 24-hour work day thanks to our attachment to smartphones and the like. Research is beginning to show that this isn’t such a smart idea.

What the researchers say: Many researchers are urging employers to do more to ensure employees do not feel pressured into working outside of their contractual hours and offer more support regarding how they work flexibly, a new study in the International Journal of Management Reviews reports.

During the review, researchers scrutinized 56 studies examining the use of technology during non-working hours. They found that a “one size fits all” approach to the use of technology outside working hours, such as switching off email servers outside of office hours, is not conducive to the needs of every employee. Although I’ve gotta say it’s not a bad idea.

The researchers identified a number of factors that contribute to people choosing to work outside of hours. The internet and improvements in ICT have made non-manual work increasingly portable and accessible, resulting in employees finding it far easier to work during non-contractual hours.

The study found that many employees felt pressure from their organization to be constantly available and to engage in work during non-work time, which was exacerbated when expectations about what was required were vague. A desire to prove dedication and “go the extra mile” were also found to be reasons why people were working more than they should.

An employee’s behavior may in turn also shape what is expected and lead to additional out of hours working (e.g. a lawyer who has been available at all times on certain matters is expected to be available all the time in the future).

However, the researchers also found that increased access to technology and working outside of office hours is actually preferred by some employees, who felt it gives them greater flexibility and control over their workload, leading to increases in self-reported efficiency and performance. The study also found that employees appreciated the benefits of being able to monitor continuously the information flow and stay on top of their work. I would say it’s called addiction.

To overcome this disparity in how employees chose to work, researchers recommend that employers give individuals control over their working patterns and actively involve them in any decisions or policies about technology use so employees can reap the benefits of modern technologies without being enslaved by them.

“A failure to disconnect from work can negatively impact on a person’s well-being and health,” said the lead author. “Many individuals report feeling pressured into logging in after hours to complete work, a task that is becoming more commonplace with the advance of technology. However, the flip side of this is that some actually prefer the flexibility this offers.

“Although employers implementing policies such as restricting accessibility to emails outside of office hours (which is becoming standard practice in Germany) take a step in the right direction to ensure a good work/life balance for their workers, such regimented approaches to when you should and shouldn’t be working do not work for everyone. Employers need to work with their staff to understand their individual needs wherever possible. However, employees also need to take responsibility for their working behavior, as it is ultimately up to them if they switch their phone off or not.”

“Our research stresses two facts,” the researchers noted. “First, there is no blanket solution to how to maximize technology use for communication. Second, we need to put the issue on the table and spell out expectations about what is reasonable. Then agree on some boundaries whilst retaining flexibility.”

“We have found the internet and new technology can give people flexibility in the way they work, and they feel this can make them more efficient and feel empowered. But other people feel enslaved by the constant need to check and reply to emails, and managers must lead by example to ensure their well-being is protected,” the researchers concluded.

So what? It reminds me of research done a few years ago which came to the conclusion that no technological advance has ever added to the sum of human happiness. Convenience, yes, but happiness no. Those researchers found that tech advances enriched the few at the expense of the many, reduced happiness and, anyway, were often a way of countering the intended or unintended ill-effects of earlier technological gizmos. It’s worthwhile remembering their realizations as we charge unthinkingly into the 24-hour work day.

What now? The researchers behind this present study are absolutely correct in one thing (actually a number of things, but I only want to concentrate on one) and that is that no tech “advance” should be brought in without the agreement of the people who will be affected by it. As an employer, you can only have an empowered workforce if you give people the right to take part in the decision-making process and acknowledge that often they will be right and you’re wrong.